Queer activism circa 1978 showed a diverse optimistic community moving ever closer to unity — before the body blow of AIDS.
Porn directors aren’t usually known for their political consciousness; usually they’re too busy trying to resuscitate an exhausted fluffer, or searching for a lost dildo, to consider the world outside the set. So it was a bit surprising when the late pornmeister Arthur Bressan decided to put together footage from every major gay pride parade or march happening in June 1977. The resulting film was an historic look at a key moment in queer history — pre-AIDS and just before the dawn of modern queer activism — that still resonates today.
Gay U.S.A. offers a thumbnail history of its subject in the comments by some of its participants. The first parades, according to one man who was there from the beginning, were entirely political, “aimed at gay liberation.” Eventually they expanded into the more celebratory events we know today. Still, perhaps because many of them came out of ’60s activism, these marchers add that crucial political dimension by connecting their struggle with that of other marginalized groups.
The film reminds us of how far we’ve come in some ways. One of the thorny issues of the ’70s was the feminist rejection of drag queens as promoting misogynist imagery, a feeling expressed by several of the women in Gay U.S.A. This notion is forcefully rejected by the film’s drag queens, who see their activities and images as inherently oppositional and thus enormously important in furthering the struggle. It’s surely a sign of progress that this particular debate is no longer dividing the community.
In other areas, the assumption that the future could only yield further gains is not borne out by history. When a woman from Kansas says, “I lost several jobs because I was gay,” we can’t help recalling that today, 20 long years later, 41 states allow employers to fire people because of their sexual orientation.
On a more upbeat note, Gay U.S.A. brims over with florid costumes, clever dish, and good humor. A wildly dressed queen insists, “Today I’m more than gay, I’m jubilant!” A thrilling dyke subtly summarizes the way the community survives through wit and intelligence in a poem addressed to a hypothetical straight person who wants her to go back in the closet: “Sure I’ll go, if you go too, but I’m polite, so after you.”